The death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on 17 March, 2012 was a great loss to many people, among whom the British Orthodox Church was noteworthy. His reception of our communities into the Alexandrian Patriarchate in 1994 and his constant paternal love and support, proved a great source of spiritual comfort over the years. Pope Shenouda, by recognising the needs of Western Christians to regain their Orthodox heritage, set in motion a significant mission. He and Metropolitan Seraphim jointly declared,
“The British Orthodox Church … is a local church, holding to the historic faith and order of the Apostolic Church, committed to the restoration of Orthodoxy among the indigenous population and desiring to provide a powerful witness to the Orthodox Faith and Tradition in an increasingly secular society”.
The British Orthodox Church was first revived in 1866, but it suffered many ups and downs in its first 128 years, until Pope Shenouda offered his support.
During the two decades in which we were part of the Alexandrian Patriarchate – within our limited means – we were blessed to offer both moral and actual support to the Mother Church in Egypt and to our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Our being part of this ancient Patriarchate also opened opportunities for closer fellowship with the other churches of the Oriental Orthodox family which had grown up in the British Isles long after British Orthodoxy was first re-established. Foremost among these was the Eritrean Orthodox Church, an ancient Christian community which gained its independence at the same time, only to suffer at the hands of an oppressive dictatorship which tried to subject the church to its political will.
These past two decades have seen many changes, both in the religious condition of the British Isles but also in the lives of Christians in the Middle East, which challenge us to a constant review of our ministry and the hindrances as well as the opportunities for Mission. Whilst many of us experienced warm friendships with Coptic Christians, both here and in Egypt, and respected the personal piety and staunch Christian faith of Copts, it was felt that our mission to bring the Orthodox Faith to the people of the British Isles was constrained by the fact that our members were expected to conform to the purely cultural conventions of Egyptian Copts, which restrained our outreach to our own people. We appreciate that this challenge of different cultures is something which seriously impacts on all Orthodox Christian communities in the West, especially among the Youth, but for us, because we are not a diaspora ethnic community, this became more challenging.
Our ministry has always been vocational, rather than professional, and all our clergy, supported themselves through secular avocations. This grounded them in the reality of current society and the practical needs of their congregations and also removed the burden from the faithful of supporting the clergy and their families in addition to the expenses of the Mission. By contrast, the Coptic diaspora, with its often prosperous and professional laity, has been able to show great generosity in its support for the church by providing for stipendiary clergy, adventurous church building programmes and other projects. Sadly, this beguiled some of our clergy, who desired the same opportunities as their Coptic brethren. It is clearly not a reality for us, but also it goes against the ethos upon which the British Orthodox Church is grounded.
Such problems may at first appear to be relatively minor issues, but they weakened our ability to work effectively and, in reality, adressing them is the key to the future mission of the British Orthodox Church. The replanting of Orthodoxy in Britain – like any gardening – needs to be appropriate to the soil on which it is founded, as well as the prevalent climate, receiving attentive and appropriate encouragement in its early stages, but if neglected or discouraged, the garden can still easily return to waste. St. Paul tells of how he planted, another watered, but God gave the increase.
From 1866 to 1994 we were an independent jurisdiction – with all the drawbacks consequent upon that – but with God’s grace our mission and ministry survived until more propitious times. We believed that unity was the better way and so we entered into communion with the Alexandrian See with Faith and Hope, anxious to contribute what we could, as much as to draw on the profound spirituality of an ancient church. For that experience we have no regrets because it has been spiritually enriching; but the cultural and other issues which surfaced, faced us with realistic challenges, which we could not ignore.
The Acts of the Apostles (XV: 36-41) recalls the separation of Paul and Barnabas, not over the Faith, but as to ways for their future ministry. Having enjoyed the many blessings of our being an integral part of the Alexandrian Patriarchate for twenty-one years, we nevertheless believed that in order to fulfil our mission more effectively, we needed to return to the autonomy we had prior to 1994. Unlike Paul and Barnabas, in amicably agreeing to our return to our former state, we had no “sharp” differences and, in truth, we have nothing but profound love, respect and gratitude for the Coptic Orthodox Church, which had been our loving Mother. We remain still resolutely committed to upholding our common Orthodox Faith.
Orthodox ecclesiology teaches that the fullness of the Church Catholic resides in each local church and that a local church is that body of Christians eucharistically gathered around its bishop, together with its priests and deacons. The local bishop is truly the ikon of our Lord Jesus Christ to those clergy and laity gathered around him and not merely a vicar of some ecclesiastical superior. This is the canonical and doctrinal basis upon which our future actions will be based and we pray that we may continue to faithfully fulfil our Mission in the unity and love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The last issue of The Glastonbury Review, No. 126, was published in 2015. After a gap necessitated by the changes consequent upon the resumption of our independence, we are happy to resume publication.